If You Only Have Time For One Big Island Hike, Make It Polulu Valley
Along the Big Island’s North Kohala coast, rests several world-renowned valleys. Of these, Polulu Valley is one of the most popular and for good reason: the timeless beauty of this valley is quite surreal, especially when you consider how long it’s remained unchanged.
Sure, the Pololu Valley overlook is breathtaking, but there’s more to be admired on the hike! Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
Regardless of how long you’re here, your time in Hawaii is probably going to have some ups and downs. Not emotionally, of course. We fully expect all our readers will have an entirely superb stay! But, geographically speaking, you’re going to spend a lot of time changing altitudes. It’s a gradient land. If you’re so inclined--pause for laughs--one of these altitude changes could take you into the gorgeous Pololu Valley.
Finding the Pololu Valley couldn’t be easier. In fact, we take you here on Shaka Guide's Kohala Coast Backcountry Tour. You’ll probably want to make a stop in a nearby town like Hawi or Kapaau (Shaka Guide will take you there too)before you head into the valley. There are no facilities of any kind once you get to the hike. From the towns of Hawi and Kapaau, head east on Highway 270 until the road ends.You’ll know you’ve made it when you see the sign in the photo below.
You'll know you've reached Pololu Valley when you see this sign. Find a parking space, and let's go on a hike! Photo by Spencer Lowe
Before you start hiking, stop for a minute and enjoy the view from the overlook.
And it only gets better from there...
A short 20-minute hike can get you to the black sand beach you see below. But, be prepared for undeveloped conditions! We'll tell you more under "The Hike In" below.
History of Pololu Valley
There’s certainly plenty to see for any geology buffs along this hike. Pololu Valley first formed around 500,000 years ago as a product of volcanic activity, beach erosion, and stream erosion. Then, around 250,000 years ago, a particularly large volcanic eruption caused a massive rockslide, which created the scenic cliffs we know now.
There’s also a rich layer of human history blanketed across this beautiful landscape, although you wouldn’t know it from looking. The valley has remained almost entirely untouched since the 1200-1400s when humans first arrived in these valleys.
How did natives use this land?
These newcomers (at the time) used the stream and wetlands that flow through the valley as an ideal place to cultivate taro -- a staple food of religious importance to native Hawaiians.
The stream found in Pololu Valley was once used to grow Taro. Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
The land was also used for other types of farming and was one of three known quarries. The stone from this valley was coarser then that of the other quarries, making it uniquely desirable. This stone was notably used in the construction of the Mo’okani and Pu’ukohola heiaus.
Kohala Ditch System
You can still find a few taro patches growing in the valley today; however, most farmers moved away from Polulu Valley following the construction of the Kohala Ditch system in 1906. The ditch system was constructed to divert water to the then-growing sugar cane industry in the area surrounding Pololu. This displacement of water, unfortunately, made taro farming significantly less viable for the native population. This was a particularly tragic loss to native Hawaiian culture since the type of taro grown in this valley, known for its bright red leaves and stems, is found nowhere else in the world.
Except for a row of Ironwood trees added to prevent erosion, Polulu Valley has remained relatively untouched since these ditches were completed. Today, on-lookers, hikers and experienced surfers all enjoy the fruits of this steadfast preservation.
The hike down isn't too strenous, plus just LOOK AT THIS VIEW! Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
The Hike In
Make sure you have plenty of water before you head into the valley. Although you’ll only be a short hike away from your transportation, there are no concession stands, bathrooms, or water fountains of any kind in the valley.
There's a fruit stand a few miles before Pololu Valley you can stop to grab some snacks and drinks at. Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau (IHVB) / Anna Pacheco
In addition, there is a somewhat strenuous elevation change of 337 feet between you and any supplies once you've descended into Polulu Valley. The walk is steep and rocky, but overall it shouldn’t give most hikers too much trouble. The hike in and out is about 1.8 miles round-trip.
You’ll want to be extra careful on rainy days as the cliff-side trail will become very slippery. Along the hike, you might notice ancient cobblestones that were likely installed by native Hawaiians in the 1400s. The hike down to the beach could be done in about 25 minutes, but we recommend allotting closer to 45 minutes for scenic overlooks. Overall, plan to spend about an hour to an hour and a half at the valley.
Along this trail, you’ll find several native plant species. These include lauhala and wilelaiki trees, in addition to abundant naupaka shrubs. Once you reach the bottom you’ll need to stop and pick your jaw up off the ground after you’re stunned by the breathtaking black sand beach.
There are trails all throughout Pololu Valley. Photo by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
The Beach at Polulu Valley
When it comes to black sand beaches, its hard to imagine a more scenic location than the Pololu Valley.
There's a catch though:
Avoid swimming at this particular beach. These waters are well known by locals to have an abundance of hungry tiger sharks. Portuguese Man o’War have also been spotted in these waters. Be aware that these sometimes deadly jellyfish also wash up on the shores of Polulu Valley.
While deaths are rare in Polulu Valley, various sources characterize man o’war stings as “excruciating.” And, although the hike and drive to town are relatively short, the beach is pretty remote if something were to happen. Better safe than sorry! And if that's not enough to keep you out of the water here, the riptides and undertows on this otherwise perfect beach are fierce and deadly.
The black sand beach in Pololu is gorgeous, but not a place that's safe for swimming! Photo: Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau (IHVB) / Larry Marshall
Endless Adventures in Polulu Valley
If you continue across the beach, keeping toward the shrubs and vegetation you’ll notice another trail going up the other wall of the valley. Once you make it to the top of Polulu Valley, there’s a lovely sitting area that looks out over the ocean and islets. If you aren’t looking to get into anything too strenuous this is a good place to turn back. Caution: experienced adventurers only beyond this point. And that’s not a challenge, by the way. From this point on, you’ll need to be extremely careful.
There are hikes for skill levels in Pololu Valley, as well as a variety of landscapes. Phoro by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
For a continued adventure, you can scale down the back end of the hill you just climbed using the rope system. This certainly isn’t a belay, but it is extremely steep. You wouldn’t be able to make it down without the ropes, to give you some idea, so plan your gear accordingly. At the bottom of Polulu Valley, you’ll find a neat little bamboo forest. At the end of the forest, you’ll come across another stream bed.
To continue or not to continue?
If you wish, you can cross this rocky bed and continue up another ascent in Polulu Valley. At the top, you’re rewarded with yet another beautiful, unique view. The trail continues on like this for about as long as you could possibly take it. It gets progressively more intense and difficult to trail blaze, but you could theoretically (and people do) take this path all the way to the Waimanu Valley. This would probably take some 10 days, and we wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but the most experienced backpackers. \
For a better maintained, but still highly remote backpacking trip consider accessing the Waimanu Valley from the other direction. You can access this trail via Waipio Valley, which we guide you to on the Shaka Guide North Island Jungle Adventure Loop.
- The Pololu Valley was used in the making of The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).
- Pololū means “long spear” in Hawaiian.
- You can hike the Pololu Valley virtually on Google Maps from the comfort of your own home.
So Get Packing for Polulu Valley!
This easily accessible valley is really one of Big Island’s best attractions. Between the short-and-sweet hike and lovely beach, the trip is certainly worth it. Your hiking options aren’t limited here, either. You can really make this Polulu Valley excursion whatever you want it to be with the trip taking as short or long as you wish. We highly recommend you check out this untouched beauty of an adventure.
If you’ve got any questions or know any other useful information about Pololu Valley, let us know on Facebook or Instagram!